Environmental decay may prompt refugee surge-study 
By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent Tue Oct 11, 2005, 2:04 AM ET 

OSLO (Reuters) - A deteriorating environment could drive 
about 50 million people from their homes by 2010 and the 
world needs to define a new category of "environmental" 
refugee, a U.N. study said on Tuesday. 

Desertification, rising sea levels, flooding and storms 
linked to climate change might displace hundreds of 
millions of people, according to the report by the U.N. 
University's Institute for Environment and Human 

"We're ringing a kind of scientific and political alarm 
bell," Janos Bogardi, head of the Bonn-based Institute, 
told Reuters. "We need to act."

He said the estimated figure of 50 million environmental 
refugees -- roughly the population of Ukraine or Italy 
-- was in some ways a worst case that would demand 
billions of dollars in extra aid.

Still, he estimated that about 20 million people were 
already displaced by problems linked to a damaged 
environment, ranging from eroded farmland to polluted 
water supplies.

Such upheavals already affected millions of people in 
sub-Saharan Africa, India and Asia, he said.

The Institute urged acceptance of the idea that 
"environmental refugees" -- people displaced by 
environmental degradation -- would be eligible for food, 
tools, shelter, medical care and grants in line with 
political refugees fleeing war or oppression at home.

Bogardi said that victims of slow-moving environmental 
catastrophes were too often dismissed as people moving 
for purely economic reasons, who are usually denied 
refugee status.

Among threats, the Gobi desert in China is expanding by 
more than 3,900 sq mile a year. The low-lying Pacific 
island state of Tuvalu has struck a deal for New Zealand 
to accept its 11,600 population if seas rise.

"This is a highly complex issue, with global 
organizations already overwhelmed by the demands of 
conventionally recognized refugees," Hans van Ginkel, 
U.N. Under-Secretary-General and rector of the U.N. 
University, said in the report.

"We should prepare now, however, to define, accept and 
accommodate this new breed of refugee," he said.

Americans who fled the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, for 
instance, were driven by a mix of environmental 
degradation and poverty caused by their failed crops.

Costs of coping with "environmental refugees" could be 

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR estimates that it has 
helped 50 million conventional refugees to restart their 
lives since it was set up in 1950. For 2005, it has 
received about $980 million in funds, mainly from 
governments led by the United States. 

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